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Musings on IT/Cert Salary Surveys

Over the past month, the folks over at Certification Magazine (who also own and run the excellent GoCertify.com site) have been mining their recently published end-of-year (2014) salary survey. As I chew over the numbers they report and the implicit career guidance they can dangle in front of current and aspiring IT professionals, I'm reminded of that old aphorism, often erroneously attributed to American humorist Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." Read on for further musings on what CertMag found and what it can, but doesn't have to mean, when it comes to crafting career plans.

The motto from the CertMag Survey results also describes stock and other markets.

As I look over the "Rising Tide" document, I can't help but notice lots of interesting things. First and foremost, the really popular names/brands in certification -- most notably Cisco, Microsoft and CompTIA, among others -- are mostly absent from this data set. Second, it's not clear from the data how an average salary correlates to the overall set of numbers for each certification credential. At a minimum, I'd like to know the mode salary for each cert (the most commonly occurring value), and the upper and lower bound for each  range of numbers (that's because one or a few really big salaries can skew the average upward, while a few really small ones can skew things the other way). For more information, please see also CertMag's "Salary Survey 75" which lists the "most statistically relevant certs in the survey -- those held by the largest number of survey respondents," which provides an interesting snapshot of the population being sampled. Here again, it shows average salaries, but without the kind of statistical context (mode, median, upper and lower bounds, and distribution of values over that range) that's necessary to truly understand what these numbers have to say.

Ponder this: for many of the certs listed in either afore-cited document, I think the numbers may be a little on the low side and/or may not be representative of going market rates for new hires with the certs in question. Some of the other numbers appear too high, in and of themselves, which perhaps explains why the Top 75 reports average Network+ salary at just over $90K, just behind the CCNP at about $310 per year more. Ditto for the Security+ at almost $94K. I'll bet you dimes for dollars that the individuals surveyed hold multiple certifications and that the correlation with their pay probably depends more on their industry tenure, current position, and total cert portfolio, than it does on which CompTIA certifications they hold (possibly acquired a decade ago or longer, and probably not the most senior or valuable of the certs they have in their portfolios).

To me, the best place to go looking for salary information is on the open market, where one can mine data from job postings or classified ads that include pay data. That's why we use Indeed.com and SimplyHired.com, among other job sites, to mine data for mention of specific rates of pay, for our own "Ranking Certifications (2014 Edition)" article (part of IT Certification Success, our online ebook right here at PITC). Our numbers vary considerably from what CertMag reports, very likely because their survey collects data about which certifications respondents hold, and our search looks for job listings that mention specific credentials by name. I have to believe that the reason why the Network+ and Security+ numbers from the latest CertMag survey are so much higher than ours is because their numbers reflect the average salary for all people who hold those certs (many of whom have long since moved on to bigger and better job roles and responsibilities) while ours reflect salaries offered for jobs that specifically mention the Network+ and/or Security+ in their descriptions and requirements.

When you start planning your career trajectory, expected rates of pay will probably end up playing at least a partial role in the certs in which you choose to invest your time, money and energy. Just make sure you understand where the numbers come from, and how they were compiled, before you bet too much on specific choices. I'm pretty sure that recent college grads with AA, AS, BA, or BS degrees with Network+ and/or Security+ certifications are NOT going to find positions that pay $90K or higher per annum, or even anything close to that. But that doesn't mean they -- and we -- shouldn't all keep trying to do better, and to find the path of personal and professional experience, education and certification that produces the kinds of professional outcomes (including pay) that best suits our interests, skills, and knowledge.